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Wednesday 16 January 2019

Bath struggle to rekindle spirit of past glories

David Kelly

David Kelly

Once they were kings. Now they're just pantomime queens.

Bath rugby club held their seasonal pantomime last Sunday, a day after their vital Premiership clash at home to Sale Sharks.

Unfortunately, someone somewhere got the dates mixed up. Saturday's dismal defeat, when they conspired to blow a 10-point half-time lead, was as farcical as any panto plot.

Still, Leinster are making all the right noises this week, the deferential nods to Bath almost dripping with condescension.

Bath are there for the taking, you suggest. "Oh no they're not," cry the Leinster squad.

Despite the fact that the one-time giants of English rugby are teetering above the trap door of relegation, the twice-crowned European champions are refusing to be baited by their supporters' exalted expectations.

"This is a different competition than the Premiership," asserts Sean O'Brien. "And we've seen before that we can't be underestimating teams that are in this situation, teams that are not playing well.

"It will be a massive physical challenge, we expect them to come out with all guns blazing. We know they'll be hurting from a couple of their losses. It will be a massive challenge and we don't expect them to carry their form into this game."

Nevertheless, Leinster are 4/9 hot favourites to win the tie in some quarters; that represents overwhelming favouritism for an away tussle in European combat.

And it's indicative of how much this proud product of the glorious cathedral city of Bath has regressed in recent history.

For those of us of a certain vintage, Bath ruled the roost when players were identified by letters, not numbers; when Nigel Starmer-Smith's excellence ruled the air.

Who could forget the plundering panache of Stuart Barnes, Simon Halliday and Jeremy Guscott, the brutish brilliance of John Hall and Nigel Redman or the smouldering seriousness of Graham Dawe and Richard Lee?

All of them thrived beneath the benevolent, often detached eye of the enigmatic Jack Rowell and, later, another maverick coach, Brian Ashton.

From 1984, when they won their first John Player Cup -- ah, the innocent days of tobacco sponsorship -- Bath's run of success was unprecedented. In 12 years, they won it 10 times. The won the league six times and completed the double four times. In amateur times, Bath's professional approach held sway.

When the game turned pro in 1995, Bath seemed set fair to take advantage. But they were left behind, swiftly overtaken by rivals such as Leicester, and brash, cash-rich newcomers like Saracens.

They did win the Heineken Cup in 1998, a come-from-behind win against the then mighty Brive propelled by Jon Callard's unerring boot.

But already that season the club had faced calls from their own supporters to oust coach Andy Robinson and captain Andy Nicol. That success in Bordeaux would stand in isolation, as if symbolically marking the end of an era.

The club's fans have been waiting for a new golden age ever since. A bit like the glorious setting of their ground, one of the gems in European rugby, these hopes have remained marooned in sepia-tinted nostalgia, rather than hard-nosed reality.

Since Bath became the first English side to lift the Heineken Cup, John Hall, Ashton (twice), Callard, Michael Foley and John Connolly and Steve Meehan have all held the coaching reins with varying degrees of success.

During the last decade, they have finished in the bottom half of the table as many times (four) as they have made the season-ending top-four play-offs; they have narrowly avoided relegation and a mooted merger with local rivals Bristol; they have won the Challenge Cup and appeared in a Heineken Cup semi-final.

The nadir of such a roller-coasterdecade would arrive on May 10, 2009, just a day after a supine Premiership semi-final defeat to Leicester seemed to confirm Bath's unconvincing attempts to regain their former pre-eminence.

A post-match party resulted in an alleged brawl with Harlequins' players and allegations of cocaine use, prompting the immediate resignation of Australian lock Justin Harrison, while co-captains Michael Crockett and Alex Crockett and another player, Andrew Higgins, were later found guilty of refusing to take drug tests.

Harrison pleaded guilty to the drugs charge, but the other three players engaged in a lengthy legal battle, yet were still found guilty of not taking drug tests and were each suspended for nine months.

The club might have found it easier to dismiss a reputation for housing good-time Charlies were it not for the fact that their international prop, Matt Stevens, was already undergoing a two-year sabbatical for the same offence. That Stevens could be snorting the white stuff up his nose, and doing it underneath the nose of everyone else at the club, revealed the extent of discord between the players, coaches and supporters.

Bath's attempts to rectify their image since have been admirable, if glacial in their effect.

A millionaire owner has vowed to build a new stadium, the team have promised to return to their unique style of running rugby and the players have pledged to cleave closer together than ever before.

Grim reality undermines dreamy ambition.

Recent submissions to Worcester and last Sunday's defeat to Sale lead one to believe the club are still haunted by their glorious past.

"Bath are under pressure, there's no doubt," says Leinster kicking coach, Richie Murphy, cutting a swathe through the puff talk.

Bath may have a fine name and tradition, but, as they say in all the good pantos: "It's behind you!"

Irish Independent

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